Human Rights Watch called on Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq to ban the practice of female genital mutilation, and said in a report released Wednesday that the majority of women in the self-ruled region undergo the medically risky and emotionally painful procedure.
The New York-based group said the new Kurdish government, which was elected in July 2009, failed to take steps to ban the practice. Initial efforts on the issue stalled under the former regional government, which also failed to make it a priority because of the culturally sensitive nature of the practice.
Female genital mutilation involves the removal of a girl's clitoris and sometimes also other genital parts, usually shortly after birth or at a young age. Critics say it can lead to painful sexual intercourse, complications in childbirth and eliminates any pleasure for women during sex.
The procedure was performed on nearly 73 percent of 1,408 Kurdish women and girls, aged 14 and over, who were interviewed as part of a study conducted between September 2007 and May 2008. The survey was conducted by the Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Co-operation, or WADI, a German-Iraqi non-governmental organization and published this year. It did provide a margin of error.
The Kurdish Regional Government has come under criticism for the treatment of women on the territory, which enjoys a high degree of autonomy and has been relatively peaceful compared with the rest of Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The Human Rights Watch report, called "They Took Me and Told Me Nothing," noted that authorities have taken steps on other issues, such as domestic violence and so-called honor killings, but said they have been reluctant to regard female circumcision as violence against women.
"It's a sensitive topic that has to do with women's sexuality," the group's Nadya Khalife told The Associated Press. "It's embarrassing for the KRG to talk about this, to say 'we still mutilate girls and women in Kurdistan.'"
The HRW said the government should come up with a long-term plan that includes a law to ban female circumcision for children and non-consenting adults as well as awareness programs on the health consequences.
Fallah Muradkhan, an official with WADI, said many former lawmakers had supported a law banning female circumcision in 2008, and his group had worked with health officials to develop an anti-female circumcision strategy. But all support was pulled without official explanation, he said.
The regional government acknowledged that it was placing more priority on domestic violence since it is much more prevalent in Kurdistan.
"Female circumcision isn't such a pressing matter for us because there are only one or two cases that we discover a year," a governmental human rights officer, Areyan Rauf, said.
The age-old practice stems from beliefs that it controls a women's sexuality, enhances fertility, or is required by religion — although both Muslim and Christian leaders have spoken out against it.
Female circumcision is also performed for alleged hygienic and aesthetic reasons in some places where genitalia are believed to be dirty.
According to the World Health Organization, about 6,000 girls are circumcised daily, and a the U.N. says a total of about 70 million girls and women in 27 African and Middle Eastern countries have undergone the procedure.
Nasreen Khadr, who raised three daughters on a farm in a small village west of the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, said her eldest daughter was circumcised when she turned five.
"It was a painful and frightening time for my daughter," she said. "But people in my village told me it was a religious duty to perform it."
She refused to circumcise her two other daughters after learning about the side effects and hearing a religious leader preach against the practice.
Amina Ahmed, 51, said she circumcised all six of her daughters because her family told her it would protect their chastity. She was shocked to learn during an awareness campaign that the practice could be harmful.
"I am sad that I did this to my daughters, but I now refuse for my granddaughters to be circumcised," said Ahmed, who lives east of Sulaimaniyah. "All I can say is that I am sorry."